Winding up 2016

The morning being so atmospherically enticing, with the sun breaking through the overnight fog and working on the heavy frost, I decided it was a good opportunity to take a final look at The Common for 2016. However, by the time I was at School Meadow (having joined the main path through School Common from Bramble Lane), the mist had begun to fight back, and it was clear the sun was losing. Nonetheless, it had done enough on the frost to produce a thaw, causing the no longer frozen water to rain down on me from the recently-rimed trees.

I was hoping the sharp spell of cold weather might have produced some good birds, but unlike my brief visit of a couple of days before, in this I was more or less thwarted. Then, I had found numerous goldcrests and a coal tit, with a suspicion of siskins, and the flight calls of a great spotted woodpecker and a pied wagtail. There was little to add to the list this time: I had hoped to properly find siskins in the alder tops, but none were there. The goldcrests, which a week ago had been promiscuously disporting themselves just out of camera reach, were also elsewhere. I did hear a bullfinch, and across the boardwalk I could hear the mewing cry of a buzzard somewhere up in the mist, like an airborne cat. It sounded more plaintive than ever, perhaps because its chance of spotting prey was fading as the mist increased.

This being the tail end of the year, it is perhaps worth considering what has been achieved on The Commons during 2016. There were 17 working parties, during which the central area, where the orchids grow, was cut twice: once in January, and then again, at the request of Natural England, in August and September. This much earlier than usual work was done to try to discourage the invasive growth of reeds in this particularly important area, much studied by scientists as a relic of a scarce mire habitat. We also did some early cutting of the sections near Warren Road, to similarly discourage the invasive Michaelmas Daisies from choking the valuable species-rich grassland there.

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The biggest and hardest job for the working parties was the cutting of half of the main reedbed, which took up six sessions as the vegetation was so tough to deal with, and the ground so treacherous. Many were the falls of volunteers into deeper than expected holes, and several were the instances of ‘Grizzly’ getting bogged down. However, as described in several previous blog entries, our impressive band of volunteers prevailed, and the winter cutting programme is bang on target.

We are always looking for ways to work more efficiently, to ease the burden on the volunteers and to minimise disturbance to the site. One of the challenges we face is to control the spread of alder and willow trees into the grassy areas on the Warren Road side of the Beck, and when we saw a ‘tree popper’ being demonstrated in the BBC Springwatch programme we were excited by the prospect. A tree popper is essential a long stout lever, with a simple yet clever mechanism at the foot, which grasps the bottom of a (small) tree stem as the lever is lowered. With very little effort, out pops the unwanted tree! We were visited by the distributor of this wonderful tool, and bought one on the spot. It is already revolutionising our ability to deal with what has hitherto been a quite intractable problem.  

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Another long-standing problem, and indeed cause of great concern, has been the storage of our tools and equipment. Until now we have stored everything in a nearby garden, but this was never a long-term solution, and had the added problem of forcing us to move the tools along the road to the Common on each working party – risky and arduous work, and the last thing anyone needed at the end of a physically demanding couple of hours. The solution was to find a way of very securely storing everything on-site, and we settled on using a shipping container. This first required planning permission to be granted, but once that was achieved the installation of the container soon followed; in itself a very impressive event.  The volunteers working on the current cutting programme are already feeling the benefit of this important and clear-sighted initiative, with many thanks to the Parish Council for their support. 

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One of the key aims of the Trust is to preserve and enhance the biodiversity of the Commons. The maintenance work we do is all intended to support this, but we also monitor the organisms living there. Our big project for 2016 was to massively increase the amount of surveying of plants, including participating in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s surveys of County Wildlife Sites by taking an intensive look at School Common. The results can be found from http://sctrust.org.uk/nature/plants. See also http://www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife-in-norfolk/county-wildlife-sites/school-common-,-southrepps-(1194) for the NWT page about School Common. The count of recorded plant species has now risen from 177 at the start of the year to 374, and is likely to rise still further as more surveying is undertaken in 2017.

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On the subject of plants, we decided to highlight a different species each month in a ‘Plant of the Month’ feature. The picture above is of Winter Aconite, our featured plant for February. In 2017, this is being widened to include species belonging to the animal kingdom too, starting with the siskin in January. And so the year begins again...